Portfolio Magazine is just one of a slew of magazines and newspapers to fold in the last few months. The publications that are still holding on are slashing jobs and cutting pay, and online publications aren't faring much better in this recession. Some media companies have tried to charge consumers for information that they are already accessing for free, only to find that it costs them both audience and advertising revenue. The model where print publications act as agents that connect advertisers and content is officially obsolete. The only economically viable option for the future of journalism lies in the direct corporate sponsorship of content.
Without media companies, there are only content providers and advertisers, and both parties currently need each other. Content cannot exist if no one is paying for it, and advertisers need a better system than dwindling print ads, which are difficult to track anyway, or banner ads, which yield a less than 1 percent click-through rate. If companies hire content providers to write directly for their sites, content will continue to exist, writers will get paid, and corporations will have a proliferation of visitors.
At present, Starbucks.com is a static corporate website. If Starbucks.com were to buy content from online literary magazines that are currently begging for donations, like Narrative, Guernica and Anderbo, Starbucks.com would become a virtual literary coffee house, thereby both enhancing its brand identity and driving visitors to the site.
If Exxon.com, another static corporate website, were to buy the content from Car and Driver and Motor Trend, not only would those writers have jobs again, but they would be getting paid more than they ever did.
Mattress.com could hire the staff of the now defunct Domino. Apple could take over the entire editorial department of The New York Times. The content would be free, but what was once the front page of the Times would now be the front page of iTunes. Writers, bloggers, podcasters and videographers would get paid again, and they would get paid in advertising dollars instead of editorial dollars, because it would be their content that was driving traffic to these corporate sites.
There is an obvious conflict of interest, which is that, if corporations are paying the writers' salaries, those corporations can dictate the content. But as Ted Glasser suggested with his National Endowment for Journalism, political and corporate reporting would be publicly funded. And sites with honest product reviews, like TripAdvisor.com and Amazon.com, have proven that the straighter a company plays it, the more it gains the respect of its audience. Remember too, that people have an authenticity filter now, as was evident by the anger over Bush-appointed Kenneth Tomlinson's campaign against the "liberal bias" at PBS. Finally, even if there is an inevitable conflict of interest, there always has been. Editorial boards have always had to account for their advertisers' interests. And a media owner like Rupert Murdock has always had the power to influence his publications' content based on his own personal financial portfolio.
Perhaps it seems vulgar to write for a brand instead of a publication, but content providers need to get paid. The Huffington Post's bloggers, none of whom are currently getting paid, would post on its advertiser, H&R Block.com's, site for actual money. And if a company like H&R Block starts to feature thoughtful and noteworthy content, there may very well be cache in being its editor-in-chief.
As writers, editors and publishers try to make sense of the new media landscape, they should ask themselves: Who has the money and what do they need? The people who have the money are the people who have always had the money: Large corporations. What they need is what they have always needed: Advertising.
It's time to cut out the middle man.